In preparation for Japan, and hopefully in an effort to avoid culture shock, I've decided on a collection of books to help me understand the country in which I'll hopefully be spending the next several years of my life. I narrowed the important aspects of Japan down to only four: History, Culture, Etiquette, and Politics.
For history, I chose Henshall's brief book A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. I needed a book with a good balance between detail and brevity, and Henshall seemed to fit the bill! After finishing, I had a good understanding of Japan (probably as good as any Japanese major remembers a few years out of school, heh).